Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley, books, Green Gables, Harvard Museum of Natural History, L.M. Montgomery, literary pilgrimage, literature, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery: The PEI Years, writers' houses
Given how many fans of L.M. Montgomery visit “Green Gables” in Cavendish, PEI each year, I find it fascinating to read about Montgomery’s own literary pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts, when she was visiting her publisher, L.C. Page in Boston in November of 1910. “Concord is the only place I saw when I was away where I would like to live,” she writes. “It is a most charming spot and I shall never forget the delightful drive we had around it. We saw the ‘Old Manse’ where Hawthorne lived during his honeymoon and where he wrote ‘Mosses from an Old Manse,’ the ‘Wayside’ where he also lived, the ‘Orchard House’ where Louisa Alcott wrote, and Emerson’s house. It gave a strange reality to the books of theirs which I have read to see those places where they once lived and labored.”
I wonder how many visitors to “Green Gables” feel that “strange reality” when they tour the house and grounds. Of course, Montgomery herself didn’t “live and labor” in that house, and the nearby house where she wrote Anne of Green Gables no longer exists (although you can visit the site and see the foundation of her grandparents’ house, and with the help of quotations on the plaques there you can try to picture her at the window of her old room upstairs).
It’s interesting to think of Montgomery’s feeling that seeing the places where Hawthorne, Alcott, and Emerson wrote somehow makes their books more “real.” It must be the same feeling that motivates so many readers of the “Anne” books to make the pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island.
Montgomery almost felt that Anne herself was real. A couple of months after her trip to Boston and Concord, she writes that “When I am asked if Anne herself is a ‘real person’ I always answer ‘no’ with an odd reluctance and an uncomfortable feeling of not telling the truth. For she is and always has been, from the moment I first thought of her, so real to me that I feel I am doing violence to something when I deny her an existence anywhere save in Dreamland” (27 January 1911).
On the same day that she visited Concord, Montgomery went to see the “Ware Collection of Glass Flowers” at the Agassiz Museum in Cambridge (now in the Harvard Museum of Natural History). Her comments here on what is real and what isn’t are interesting, too. “I wasn’t feeling very anxious to see them for the sound of ‘glass flowers’ didn’t please me. But I am glad I didn’t miss that wonderful collection. Yes they are indeed wonderful—so wonderful that they don’t seem wonderful at all—they seem to be absolutely real flowers and you have to keep reminding yourself that they are made of glass—of glass—to realize how wonderful they are.”
Do glass flowers help us appreciate real flowers even more? Do visits to literary sites make us better, more attentive readers? Maybe. Maybe not. But Montgomery’s belief in what’s real in fiction is apparent in her further comments about her famous heroine Anne Shirley: “She is so real that, although I’ve never met her, I feel quite sure I shall do so someday—perhaps in a stroll through Lover’s Lane in the twilight—or in the moonlit Birch Path—I shall lift my eyes and find her, child or maiden, by my side. And I shall not be in the least surprised because I have always known she was somewhere.” Thus hundreds of thousands of people continue to visit Green Gables every year, many of them in search of “Anne” and that “strange reality.”
L.M. Montgomery was born on this day, November 30, in 1874. Louisa May Alcott was born 181 years ago yesterday, on November 29, 1832.
Quotations are from The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery: The PEI Years, 1901-1911, ed. Mary Henley Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston (Oxford University Press, 2013). You can read my review of the book on page 33 of the Fall 2013 edition of Atlantic Books Today.